Great exhibits take collaboration

By Rebecca Fell-Mazeroski

A lot of people think of exhibits as something handled by the Exhibits Department with little to no input from others. My experience, however, has been that the best exhibitions involve a lot of collaboration with other departments and the community. Our latest exhibit: “Alligator Wrestling: Danger. Entertainment, Tradition.” is a great example of strong collaboration.

Like most of our exhibits, we rely on the Collections team to help us source objects in the collection and make sure they are safely displayed. Even other departments outside the museum become vital. Up the road, our pals at Billie Swamp Safari provided the welding and metal skills to help install the totem pole in this display.

Our co-workers down at Billie Swamp Safari used their superior welding tools to make a stable metal base for our totem pole display.

We are lucky enough to have an oral historian, Justin Giles, to conduct interviews and search the archives for stories and interviews that come from alligator wrestlers. If there is one thing I have learned working for the Seminole Tribe of Florida, it is the voice of the community is vital and needs to be heard in the Museum. Also, spending time in their archives, Seminole Media Productions (SMP) provided us a short film allowing visitors to experience alligator wrestling matches.

Of course, getting interviews from alligator wrestlers involves sharing and collaborating with them on the every aspect of the exhibit. Every good exhibit topic has more stories and themes than we can share with visitors. The wrestlers, like Billy Walker, Zac Battiest, Everett Osceola, and the Holt Brothers, are essential in pointing out what stories matter to them. That is how we develop the text, displays, and interactives. Jack Chalfant, THPO staff member and retired alligator wrestler, and his team built a 7’ x 7’ chickee in the museum in two days. Along the way, the museum consulted with Facilities and the Seminole Fire Department to meet safety requirements.

Community member Jack Chalfant and his team put a chickee together inside the museum in two days. Jack is a cattleman, THPO staff member, and retired alligator wrestler

Additional help came from other community members. Marlin Billie was able to share his experiences growing up in a tourist village, including all the gator wrestlers he knew. Cody Motlow, who is working with us through the Tribe’s Work Experience Program , gave us a much needed  pair of hands, some good proof-reading, and even an another photo to use in the displays.

Robin Croskery-Howard, Conservator, is always on hand at installs to ensure the safety of the objects. Cody Motlow, WEP intern, is helping install a postcard. Cody also provided additional community insight and resources.

We are truly excited about our exhibit on Alligator Wrestling because it feels like something that is bigger than the Exhibits Department and even the Museum itself. I hope you get a chance to come see it and enjoy it!

“Alligator Wrestling: Danger. Entertainment. Tradition.”  is open now and on display until November 29, 2020. The opening reception will be on January 11th, 2020 from 1 pm – 4 pm.

Coming to Understand Seminole Alligator Wrestling

By Siobhan Millar, Exhibits Coordinator

When I was about 20, my sister and I did a weekend trip to Naples. At the time she lived in the Hammocks area of Kendall Drive in Miami. The Hammocks were as far south-west as one could live before reaching Krome Ave. Once there, it was bushy and isolated until you hit the Tamiami Trail. Then it was wildness again for miles, at least until you approached the Miccosukee Village. We made a point to stop and visit to look at the baskets, beadwork and, of course, watch the alligator wrestling.  So what does this have to do with the Museum’s Blog? Little did I know then that nearly 30 years later I would be working as an exhibits developer for Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum and developing an exhibit on what else, but Alligator Wrestling!

In 1991, alligator wrestling was on the decline from calls of abuse by animal activists. Back then I was, admittedly, clueless about the traditional cultural aspects that played a part in the practice of alligator wrestling. Having to develop an exhibit about alligator wrestling has challenged me in unexpected ways. With help from Jack Chalfant, Marlin Billie, Billy Walker, Clinton and James Holt, and Mike Gentry, I have a fuller understanding of how alligator wrestling affected the lives of Tribal Members.

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Image courtesy of the Seminole Tribune, Brighton Field Days 2017.

The association between the Seminoles and alligator is long lasting, having begun with the hunt and capture of the reptile for survival. In the generations that followed, the hunt and trade of alligator hides with non-Seminole businesses helped Seminoles obtain supplies to sustain the camp. This became a transitioning point for Seminole men as they joined Florida’s emerging tourist industry and entered the alligator at non-Seminole attractions. Eventually, this association would help to support Tribal-run operations, and aid in some part financial independence.

There are also the aspects of respect regarding traditions and the respect for the animal and the dangers that inevitably go along with alligator wrestling. The wrestler’s respect for the alligator is far more apparent to me now than it was before. There have been shifts in attitudes, too. I am grateful for the personal and traditional stories Jack Chalfant, Billy Walker, Clinton and James Holt and Marlin Billie have shared with me. The alligator has helped shape the environment of the Everglades, home to the Seminole and Miccosukee, and provided life in so many ways – for birds, plants, and humans alike. For the Seminoles, alligators fed your families. With quiet unpredictability, the alligator allowed man to match his strength against his own.

There has been humbleness and learning from seeing the practice fall into decline with the rise of animal rights and near mishaps. There is now a focus on the educational and for some, like Clinton Holt, the more “holistic” approach of the animal’s wildness. Along the way, the Tribe’s alligator handlers have rolled with the changes. It is with the same resilience applied by their ancestors that the tradition is still alive. I am interested to see where the tradition goes from here.

To find out more, why not come and explore the exhibit Alligator Wrestling: Danger, Entertainment, Tradition; opening on December 16, 2019 at the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum.

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Conservators – The Original Photoshop

By Rebecca Fell, Curator of Exhibits

The main purposes of the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum are to tell the Seminole story and to care for the objects of the Seminole people. There are many formally prescribed ways the staff does these things at the Museum. Further, the team sees itself as a resource to the community. Sometimes that means using these technical skills in less formal ways.

Robin Croskery-Howard is the Conservator for the Museum. She likes to say her job is “Objects Doctor.” She makes sure the healthy objects stay healthy by monitoring the conditions in which they are stored and displayed. She also provides treatments to objects when they are brought in “unhealthy” or due to old age which makes them susceptible to developing problems while in the Museum’s care. These treatments are usually preventative in nature, but sometimes she needs to be proactive and fix something that has broken.

As a result, Robin is able to share a great number of tips with Tribal community members on how to care for their most precious items. Attending events such as the Senior Center lunches, she shares information on how to safely store these items, how to make lasting repairs, and who might also be able to repair the items in question. Sometimes, when her schedule allows and her skill sets are best suited, she is able to step in and make the repair herself.

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Pictured here is Robin making repairs to a physical photograph. The photograph of cattleman Junior Cypress (who the Junior Cypress Rodeo and Entertainment Complex in Big Cypress is named after) had heat sealed to the glass of the frame. This happens frequently to photos when they have been in their frames too long, sometimes too close to a lamp or window. Robin had to carefully separate the image from the glass, and gently pull away the sealed portion from the image. Loss of emulsion, the top layer/ image part of a photo, is almost always inevitable. But here Robin was able to pull the lost piece away from the glass afterwards and perform a procedure called bridging. Using a very expensive Japanese tissue paper and creating a special kind of glue, she creates a piece of backing to stabilize the detached piece and affix it back to the original image. By using these very particular materials she not only fixes the image but ensures that it will stay intact for as long as the photograph exists.

Next Robin will still need to scan the image to make a few adjustments in Photoshop. You might ask, “well, why doesn’t she just do that in the first place?” Photoshop is great tool that can provide pristine copies and even ‘fix’ images through the use of filters. But, it only ever makes copies; the original will still need repairing. In some cases, this is fine. People are okay with getting a good copy instead of holding onto the original photograph. However, the staff knew the community member wanted to keep the original as well as have copies to share with others.

Pinball Machines are Fickle but Ours Has Attitude

By: Nora Pinell-Hernandez, Exhibits Fabricator

Our giant “Journey to a New Home” pinball machine or as I call it, “Pinball V. 4.0”, is temporarily in our shop for repairs and improvements. The pinball machine works much how the housing process works for Tribal Members – confusing and slighting frustrating. Although our design includes infrared, magnetic and vibration sensors, it doesn’t always react the way it was engineered to. Someone wittingly mentioned that the pinball machine has taken the personality of the housing process because sometimes it takes a really long time to push your housing permits through and sometimes your contract gets stuck and no amount of shakes will get the ball rolling again. With this new round of improvements our sensors will be more accurate and the lights blinking as the ball rolls down the ramps will be almost dizzying – much how the real process it, but this time it will be intentional.

Prototyping
Before taking down the pinball machine I made adjustments to the code of our Arduino (the micro-controller that reads and powers our lights and sensors). This is me, both frustrated and happy that I got the light bulb to light-up but not the motor.

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 “Journey to a New Home” with half the lights on. Soon it will glow with even more lights!

Inside
This is the inside of the pinball machine. Notice ALL those wires? Some deliver power and some deliver signals to and from the sensor to the Arduino. The Arduino has a set of “if/else” statements that determines when a light or motor should be turned on.

KidsPlaying
A family enjoying “Journey to a New Home”. They learned how to get the ball all the way to the end with a lot of patience and tactic.

We Are Here will be on view until the end of November 2019. Take a trip to our Museum and experience the frustration of going through the housing process on the reservation.

A Tasty Sneak Peek of our Next Exhibit

By Rebecca Fell, Curator of Exhibits

The Museum puts up, on average, six new exhibits each year. Many of the exhibits feature items from the collection or from artists and students within the Tribal community. However, one particular exhibit always focusses on important themes or aspect of Seminole culture. This year, the staff took on the interesting but weighty topic of Tribal sovereignty in the exhibit We Are Here: Voices & Hands Making Community Happen.

There are many ways to talk about the Tribe’s right to govern themselves and what that looks like. But, to keep it relevant to most visitors, the exhibit will focus on the way sovereignty appears in day to day activities. The exhibit will also look at frequently asked visitor questions and set about answering them, because these are often really just questions about how the Seminoles are both similar and different from the rest of American culture.

The questions answered are:

  1. How does the community stay healthy?
  2. How does the community stay safe?
  3. How do Tribal members share information and knowledge?
  4. How is housing developed for Tribal members?
  5. How are the Tribe’s resources, water, and land managed?

This exhibit will share information on how these common human aspects are achieved in the Seminole communities with the assistance of the Seminole government. Interactive opportunities will allow visitors to understand how sovereignty is ingrained in daily activities and something all can participate in.

For instance, health is an important aspect of Seminole culture, an aspect that involves all generations. At the Boys & Girls Club, an after-school activity shows children how to build a healthy snack by teaching them to make parfaits and trail mixes using portion control. In the exhibit, We Are Here: Voices & Hands Making Community Happen, the exhibits team is making the “Build A Healthy Snack Interactive,” which gives visitors an opportunity to learn about building their own trail mix in healthy proportions.

Surely the Museum could have hired an exhibition fabricator to build such an interactive, but what is the fun in that?

Instead, the exhibits team gets the fun of gluing food to a board:

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making molds of the food:

and then painting food!

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Here is a planned drawing from the layout and design:

Health Section - TrailMix Interactive

Come check out We Are Here: Voices & Hands Making Community Happen on June 11th. And don’t worry about the calories from the (fake) trail mix. There will be a tricycle interactive for you to try and see if you can beat the cycling time of Seminole seniors from their annual Trike Fest.